The looting of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo has perhaps the richest concentration of precious metals and minerals on earth. Colette Braeckman describes how their exploitation by warring factions has fuelled the worst conflict anywhere since the Second World War.

ONLY the tiny planes that sit on Kamituga’s bare earth runway link this mining town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to the rest of the world.

The last time Europeans visited Kamituga was over five years ago, before the war began. The children shout with surprise when they see white skin.

The installations of the former Sominki (Société des Mines du Kivu) company have been ransacked, the shafts flooded and the jungle has invaded the crumbling sheds and offices. But exploitation of the site continues.

Teams of local diggers remove lumps of stone, threaded with veins of gold from grooves hand-cut into the hillsides. The work is intense. The diggers take the stones to women who grind them for hours until they have reduced them to powder mixed with spangles of gold dust. The dust is then carefully sifted.

For this slave labour, the women receive a dollar a day. At night, if they agree to prostitute themselves, they receive another dollar.

Once the diggers have collected a small quantity of gold, they must file past the rebel ‘commander’ of this place. Everyone calls him ‘Divide-by-Two’ because the diggers have to cede half their gold to rebel soldiers belonging to RCD Goma (Rally for Congolese Democracy). Soldiers and officers use the revenue to buy and transport the arms they need for the occupation of this province, Kivu.1

In January 2004 a delegation from the capital, Kinshasa, managed to dethrone Divide-by- Two and his men. Up till then the RCD rebels had total control of the place.

If in Kamituga there is no road and no school; if the majority of girls are pregnant by 13 and have to give birth by caesarean because their pelvises are too small; if no campaign against HIV has ever been conducted; it is not through lack of wealth. The place is rich in cassiterite (tin ore), colombo tantalite ore (coltan) and other precious minerals lying in land that is fertile and abandoned by farmers.

This is the ‘geological scandal’ that is the Democratic Republic of Congo. For a long time its environment has provided the resources that the industrialized world requires (see ‘A Short History of Plunder’, page 16). The mines of the Congo have poured forth diamonds as well as metals and minerals – niobium, tungsten, pyrochlore, coltan, and germanium. These minerals, used in hi-tech manufacturing from mobile phones to spaceships, are the valuable stakes which the perpetrators of the last 10 years of violence have been playing for.

Used in the service of the nation, these resources could have earned an estimated revenue of two or three million dollars a year. Yet in Kamituga, as in the rest of the Congo, the wealth that lies underground has become synonymous with war, misery and under-development.

A war amongst thieves

Two key factors helped to plummet the Congo into war.

In the late 1980s the money to be made in the country had attracted the attention of some 20 large international corporations from South Africa, France, Canada, the US and Australia. They vied for control of the main Congolese state mining companies such as Gecamines (copper and cobalt), Okimo (gold), Miba (diamonds) and Sominki (gold and cassiterite).

Yet the corruption and decadence of the then-ruling Mobutu regime and the chaos reigning in the country prevented such deals going ahead. Mobutu was opposed to the privatization of such companies, not out of nationalism, but because they were the main cash cows of his regime and the source of his vast personal wealth. The international community became increasingly keen to replace Mobutu with a more co-operative business partner.

Then, in the 1990s, several wars in the African Great Lakes region emerged one from the other like Russian dolls. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, largely by the Hutus against the Tutsis, nearly two million Hutu refugees fleeing a counter-offensive poured across the border into neighbouring Congo.

The refugee crisis helped destabilize the eastern Congo, for among them were perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. Militarily organized, they threatened the local population and promised to re-enter Rwanda. The situation was a festering abscess largely ignored by the international community.

In October 1996, Rwanda took action to control its border with the Congo and prevent the return of the genocidal Hutu militias, forming a strange coalition – the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL). It was led by Congolese veteran guerrilla fighter Laurent Kabila, an opponent of Mobutu since the 1960s. The majority of the fighting force were members of the new Rwandan army and supported by Ugandan units. The Rwandan forces killed thousands of Hutus in the refugee camps. After seven months the coalition went on to capture Kinshasa and Kabila was installed as President.

This was a sort of African ‘joint venture’ in which Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers, Angolan planes and Zimbabwean financial contributions all played a part. The coalition sought not just to overthrow Mobutu; it was also intent on appropriating the Congo’s resources.

It wasn’t long before the logic of a war fought for resources became apparent. A month before the fall of Kinshasa, on 16 April 1997, Kabila’s AFDL made a milliondollar deal with US-Canadian corporation American Mineral Fields to extract copper, cobalt and zinc in the southern province of Katanga. In exchange for an advance which ultimately was used to finance the war, the company also received a monopoly over the diamond-buying counters of Kisangani.

The mines of the Congo have poured forth diamonds, metals and minerals

Several other companies entered the fray. South Africans Genscor and Iscor competed with rival Canadian corporation Ludin for the exploitation of copper and cobalt at Tenke-Fungurume in Katanga. The Canadian Barrick Gold Corporation (whose board of directors include George Bush Senior, former Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney, and the former director of the German Central Bank Karl Otto Pohl) was interested in the Gold Office of Kilo Moto in the eastern province of Ituri. Meanwhile another Canadian company, Banro Resources Corporation, eyed up the Sominki concessions in Kivu.

Although he was brought to power by foreign armies in May 1997, Kabila had the imprudence to show himself ungrateful. He reneged on contracts signed during the war and attempted both to limit the repayment of war ‘debts’ to and restrain the influence of Rwanda, Uganda and their corporate allies. Kabila, an old Leftist from the 1960s, baulked at repaying the foreign debt, arguing that the money lent during the Cold War had enriched only Mobutu. Most crucial of all, he decided to centralize the sale of diamonds, create a Congolese exchange office for raw materials and limit foreign corporations’ access to the country’s vast regions of mineral wealth.

Wanted: compliant regime

Kabila’s unwillingness to be a tool of the West was his undoing. On 2 August 1998, with the consent of the international community – in particular the US, who monitored the whole operation and sent Special Forces into the east – Rwanda and Uganda launched another war. This time their purpose was to overthrow the non-compliant Kabila and replace him with a ‘reliable’ power that would be submissive to their financial interests. But due to the unforeseen resistance of Kabila and, above all, the military intervention of Angola and Zimbabwe who backed him, their attempt to remove him failed.

Once again, the country’s resources financed the war and became the real stake. The east of the country was ransacked and pillaged by Rwandan and Ugandan forces.

Between September 1998 and August 1999, according to UN experts: ‘The occupied zones of the DR Congo have been plundered of all their stocks: stocks of minerals, of forest and agricultural products, of livestock... Troops from Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and soldiers of the RCD Goma commanded by an officer, visited farms, factories and banks... Orders were given to soldiers to load up products and goods on their armed vehicles.’2

Mai-Mai child soldier Kagoyi Amondala smoking a joint in the ‘Hauts Plateaux’ near Uvira.

Photo: Sven Torfinn / Panos /

In the vicinity of Kamituga, Rwandan forces and their allies organized the removal of thousands of tonnes of coltan and cassiterite and its transportation back to the Rwandan capital, Kigali. Ugandan militia confiscated Kisangani’s entire stock of wood. Their ally Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the second largest rebel force, the anti-government Congolese Liberation Movement, seized the entire stock of available coffee. It took two months to transport these enormous stocks to Uganda. Ugandan generals close to their President, Museveni, set up companies and generously supplied arms to various ethnic militias who are still fighting each other in Ituri.

Banks were raided, stocks were plundered, vehicles were spirited away by aeroplane, ordinary citizens were robbed: eastern Congo was pillaged by greed, looting and bloodshed.

A price paid in human lives

All over the country exploitation has been the consequence of war. Eighteen armed groups have emerged, including Hutu militias from Rwanda and Burundi, soldiers from both these countries and groups of Congolese ‘Mai Mai’ fighting against foreign occupation. All live by exploiting local inhabitants through civilian massacres, the recruitment of child soldiers and the systematic rape of women from little girls to grandmothers.

At Bunyakiri in the heart of the Kivu rainforest, where Mai Mai combatants and RCD soldiers confront each other, market trader Mathilde is fatalistic: ‘When we pass through the soldiers’ barricades, whether or not we agree to be paid, we will be raped by one lot or another... It’s because of this that we don’t dare go to the fields, that our pastures are abandoned.’

In order to escape the massacres and the burning villages, where soldiers gather to get their hands on coltan stocks, hundreds of thousands of Congolese have taken refuge in the forest where they have become prey to wild animals, hunger, and disease. It is estimated that over 3.5 million people have died, directly or indirectly, as a result of five years of war. There are areas, like Kalemié by Lake Tanganyika, where three-quarters of all children under five have disappeared. If a census takes place on the eve of the elections predicted for 2005, the blood-soaked picture of a population ravaged by rape and massacres and the spread of HIV/ AIDS will appear in full.

For years, preoccupied with hounding Kabila from power, the international community has looked the other way while rebel groups, created and manipulated by Rwanda and Uganda, were treated as ‘freedom fighters’. It took the assassination of Kabila in January 2001 for the situation to change.

His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him and implemented a new policy of ‘openness’. He accepted the deployment of a UN force, authorized a free press and promised free and fair elections within a reasonable time-frame. And most importantly, he opened markets to foreign interests and investors, increased mining and logging concessions and reconciled the Congo with the international financial institutions.

A strange peace

In 2002, South Africa, supported by the international community, brokered a peace deal in Sun City. The result of this inter- Congolese dialogue was a strange accord. Described as ‘global and inclusive’, it brought all the warring parties, the parties of the former opposition and civil society together in power. That is, it includes belligerents, plunderers, collaborators from foreign armies, those responsible for massive violations of human rights (including cases of cannibalism in the region of Ituri), and the inheritors of Mobutu-ism and its corrupt practices – who now find themselves associates in government.

The main advantages of this deal, which consecrates impunity and rewards the men of arms while neutralizing them, is that it has allowed the reunification of the country and opens the door to the re-establishment of central power and reconstruction, including a general election.

Above all, Congo is finally back in the fold. A draconian economic austerity programme imposed on a people already impoverished by the Mobutu regime and two successive wars has allowed the regime to reconcile itself with the global financial institutions which have promised loans worth $3,900 million. A new mining code highly beneficial to foreign investors has been proposed. South African companies, outposts of multinational capital, are expecting rich pickings.

President Mbeki on a recent visit to Kinshasa to sign various deals – including an eightmillion- dollar gold-mining agreement for a South African company – emphasized how key the Congo was to the success of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development), a programme which will smooth the progress of Western investment in Africa and, more than ever, assigns to the continent the role of provider of raw materials. Every day, new deals are being made in the salon of Kinshasa’s Hotel Memling by developers from all over the world jostling to offer projects and grab contracts.

Meanwhile, the ever-patient Congolese continue to subsist on salaries of ten dollars a month, walk two or three hours a day to get work and never know in the morning whether they will eat at night. And in the eastern provinces of Ituri and Kivu, despite the presence of UN forces, tens of thousands of armed men continue to live by holding local populations to ransom.

It will take years before the effects of war in this brutalized country are healed.

Colette Braeckman is a journalist for Soir de Bruxelles, a contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and author of several books on Central Africa including, Rwanda: History of a genocide, Fayard 1994, The Congolese Stake, Fayard 2001 and The New Predators, Fayard 2003.

1 The censored section of the 2003 report of the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Pillage of Congo reveals that it was the revenue from a company based in Goma whose directors are reputed to be close to Rwandan officials. This allowed the rebels of RCD Goma to buy and transport the arms they needed for their occupation of Kivu. 2 ‘Report of group of experts on the illegal exploitation of natural reserves and other wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo’, letter of 12 April 2001, addressed to the UN Security Council by the Secretary General, followed by letter of November 2001 and by the third report, October 2002.

A short history of plunder

Is there a place on earth which has been looted and exploited as thoroughly as the Congo?

In 1491 Portuguese explorers visiting the African kingdom of Kongo opened the door for the Atlantic slave trade. In 1526 Kongolese King Affonso I wrote to the King of Portugal complaining: ‘Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – our land is entirely depopulated.’

Between 1884 and 1906 the Belgian King Leopold II annexed and ruled the Congo as a brutal personal fiefdom from which to funnel riches. Congolese people were enslaved to gather ivory and rubber and faced devastating punishments for failing to meet quotas. Their hands were chopped off, they were beaten, executed, their villages were burnt, women were raped and children kidnapped. The death-toll was of holocaust proportions, estimated at 10 million people – half of the Congo’s population.

The Belgian state took over the running of the Congo in 1908, but the exploitation continued. During the First World War, the population was devastated once more by hunger, disease and death when they were compelled to 120 days of forced labour per year. International diamond, gold, mineral, timber, railroad and other corporations extracted Congolese wealth in earnest: in the Second World War over 80 per cent of the uranium in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs came from the Congo.

Periodic Congolese resistance culminated in independence in 1960. Patrice Lumumba became the first directly elected Prime Minister of the country, but his determination to use the Congo’s riches to serve its people threatened Western financial and corporate interests. Lumumba was arrested and assassinated as a result of a vast conspiracy by US and Belgian intelligence and his Congolese rivals, including Army Chief of Staff Colonel Joseph Mobutu.

Between 1965 and 1997 the military dictator Mobutu ruled a deeply corrupt, authoritarian kleptocracy. This home-grown Leopold was supported by the US to the tune of over a billion dollars, as well as by France and other Western interests. With their approval, the wealth of the Congo poured out of the country via foreign mining companies. What stayed behind went to line the pockets of ‘the big man’ Mobutu – whom George Bush Sr once described as ‘one of our most valued friends’ – and his cronies. He left behind a bankrupted, ravaged country.

Sources: Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Pan 2002; Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, The Congo from Leopold to Kabila, Zed Books 2002.

Colette Braeckman is a journalist for Soir de Bruxelles, a contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique and author of several books on Central Africa including, Rwanda: History of a genocide, Fayard 1994, The Congolese Stake, Fayard 2001 and The New Predators, Fayard 2003.

  1. The censored section of the 2003 report of the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Pillage of Congo reveals that it was the revenue from a company based in Goma whose directors are reputed to be close to Rwandan officials. This allowed the rebels of RCD Goma to buy and transport the arms they needed for their occupation of Kivu.
  2. ‘Report of group of experts on the illegal exploitation of natural reserves and other wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo’, letter of 12 April 2001, addressed to the UN Security Council by the Secretary General, followed by letter of November 2001 and by the third report, October 2002.